Nearly 60 years after its birth, rock and roll remains American music’s most successful illegitimate offspring, with everyone from Bo Diddley and Little Richard to Bill Haley and Ike Turner having stepped forward to position themselves in the delivery room and no one really knowing who deserves to sign the birth certificate. Rock’s mother has never been much disputed, however. That distinction belongs to Wanda Jackson, the “Queen of Rockabilly” who came roaring out of Oklahoma in 1956 as a big-voiced teenager and quickly learned to throw elbows with the boys who were just starting to build rock and roll into a worldwide phenomenon. Though she never reached the level of success of her boyfriend and tour-mate Elvis Presley, her “Mean Mean Man,” “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party” have become staples in the rock canon, paving the way for her second life as a country singer in the 1960s and as the matriarch for a generation of riot grrls and roots rock revivalists. Now the grandmother of rock, she has outlasted nearly all of her contemporaries, still touring the world and working on new recordings at the age of 72.
But to simply count off Jackson’s accomplishments is to tell only half of her story. Just as important to her is the work she has done since the early 1970s, having found a higher calling than rock and roll when she and her husband committed themselves to their Christian faith and began rattling the roof beams of churches instead of rock clubs. Eventually, Jackson decided that she could reach even more people by playing to audiences outside of the church, and she returned to the rock festival circuit, her legend having grown exponentially during his years out of the spotlight. New recordings followed, a documentary of her life was made, and admirers from Elvis Costello to Bruce Springsteen stepped forward to support her candidacy for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now working on a new album with the White Stripes’ Jack White (a project she isn’t yet ready to talk about), Jackson appears ready to welcome her musical offspring into the fold.
Busted Halo: When you started singing rock and roll, did you realize that you were the first woman to be involved with it?
Wanda Jackson: Yeah, that I knew. You couldn’t hardly miss that fact. I couldn’t find original material for girls, so I started writing at that point. I had written quite a few country songs before that, but my dad, who was my manager and travelled with me and was so hopeful, he said, “Well, you’re a songwriter and you’ve written some good ones. Try your hand at these songs. They sound pretty simple.” So I wound up writing quite a few of them and went on to write one of my biggest songs, “Right or Wrong,” and I wrote that during that time period. When you look at my discography through the late 50s into the 60s, you’ll see that I did a lot of cover songs, because there still wasn’t much material out there except the ones that I’d already recorded. It seemed strange that I was doing Little Richard songs and Elvis and all these others. But that’s all I had to choose from, and now that’s paid off in spades, because songs like “Stupid Cupid” and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” they think they were my hits.
BH: So from what I’ve read, you originally came to faith through your children wanting to go to church.
WJ: Right. It took them to keep nagging us, you know. But we weren’t home very many weekends, and in this business, if you travel, you’re going to be gone on the weekends. But there came a Sunday that we were going to be home. My mother took the kids to church while we were gone, and we finally got tired of them nagging us, and we said, “Heck, we’re off this Sunday. Let’s go and get them off our backs.” And we went, and both of us gave our hearts of Christ that Sunday. It was wonderful.
BH: What had you thought of Christianity before that?
WJ: Well, I had been brought up in a Christian home. My mother was [a Christian]; my dad wasn’t. But [he was] a wonderful person. No abuse or anything. I was an only child and the light of their lives, and they sacrificed a lot of their time together and a lot of their energy in helping me to make my dream come true. They knew I was destined to do this. I wouldn’t even prepare myself for anything else, so I had to make it, right? If I didn’t, I’d be picking cotton or something. They were wonderful in that respect.
BH: I’ve also read that becoming a Christian ultimately saved your marriage.
WJ: Well, it turned out that it did, but that’s never the reason for someone to get saved. It’s when God speaks to your heart in a definite way and you respond to that call. Our marriage wasn’t in bad trouble, but we were on that road. We could tell, and we knew something needed to change. But before I became a Christian, the thought of not singing anymore or not traveling just scared me to death. It’s not a good thing, but my whole life has been my music and my career, and I don’t really know who I am outside of that realm. It’s kind of a difficult thing to find yourself. We just knew that things weren’t good and that something had to give. Like I said, it’s not a reason to come to Christ, but once we did, all that stuff went out the window. I won’t preach to you, but it was a wonderful thing. All of a sudden we weren’t butting heads anymore and bowed to God’s will for our loves. You know how married people get mean to each other sometimes because there’s nobody else that will put up with it, so you fight with them. The drinking all the time and that way of life — that all changed.
I continued to sing in the places that I’d been singing all along, but finally we got uncomfortable in that situation. We were brand new Christians at that point, and we stepped out in faith and didn’t take any more nightclub dates. Churches were calling us, wanting me to come and sing and give my testimony, and then they began to ask Wendell to give his testimony to get his side of it. We had our own ministry for about 18 years, and it was just he and I. I would sing and give my testimony, and I’d invite Wendell up to give his testimony, and we saw many lives changed. It was a very fulfilling time. My intention was never to divorce country music, because I had gone back to country at that point. I hadn’t had a real big hit in rock and roll. “Let’s Have a Party” came along in 1960, and we were married in ’61, when “Right or Wrong” was a big hit. That put me back on the charts.
BH: When you first started singing in churches, were people accepting or suspicious of you?
WJ: A little bit of both. The main thing was that we were filling the churches with people. My name was still well known with some of the rock audience in the country, and they were coming, going, “What happened to Wanda Jackson?” And that’s exactly the way God wanted to use me at that point. It didn’t matter to me their reason for coming. The main thing was people were showing up in church who the church members would say, “We can’t believe it. We’ve been praying for that guy for years, and this is the first time that he has set foot within our doors.” It was encouraging to church members, the body of Christ.
BH: Did you feel differently about your rock music after becoming a Christian?
WJ: No, I didn’t. I just didn’t have much opportunity to sing it. Sometimes churches had events or parties where they wanted me to sing some of my country stuff, and I’d do it. From ’73 to ’85, ministry was the main point. But when Rosie Flores asked me to sing two songs on her new album, I agreed to do it, and that started the ball rolling in America. In ’85, I started recording and doing concert tours with country and rockabilly and gospel bands. That’s another point about the European audiences — if they like you they’ll let you sing whatever you want to and enjoy it all equally. Americans kind of like to pigeonhole you. “Are you this or are you that? What is your favorite kind of music?” Well, it’s all my favorite kind of music. And the first man who brought me to Sweden said, “I don’t know what to call your show.” So he ended up calling it “The Happy Wanda Jackson Country Gospel Rockabilly Show.” [Laughs.] So it took a long marquee, but that way people knew that I’d be singing all three kinds of songs. I didn’t want to make them think they were going to hear just this or just that. That little title did it.
And after we worked Scandinavia for awhile, I was surprised by all the fans I had there, because we didn’t have the media coverage then that we do today. You had no idea how big you were in a certain country until you went there. So we worked it 22 years straight. Western Europe opened up to me because they heard about my crowds in Scandinavia. Of course, I had a #1 song in Germany in 1965, and it was done in the German language, and I wound up recorded 18 songs in the German language. That song had become, I found out later, what they call an “evergreen song.” We might call it a standard. Every generation since then knows that song, and when I sing it, they stand and get their cigarette lighters and wave and sing with me. They’ve done that all along, and it knocked me out. Each generation knows the thing, like “Fujiyama Mama” in Japan. You don’t need too many of those to keep working.
BH: Over the years, did you know you had this growing legend status?
WJ: No… I don’t think I knew that. I don’t know why. I knew girls were singing it now, but I didn’t like all of them. The music had changed so much. The style and way of dressing was so foreign to me, so I never thought maybe I influenced those kinds of girls. Then I found out I had been a big influence on them and guys, as well. It has been an exciting ride, I’ll tell you.
BH: Looking over your career, it seems like God has had his hand on you, from Hank Thompson hearing your music on the radio to Elvis’ manager needing a girl on his tour. It seems like God has put you in the right place at the right time.
WJ: I think you’re exactly right, because He knew how He would eventually be able to use my popularity. That keeps it all in perspective for me, because all this acclaim that is being bestowed on me now, some people couldn’t handle that very well, thinking, “I’m really a big deal.” But, like you said, I’m thinking, this is God, so my testimony can reach the world. We’re not going to save the world within the four walls of the church. So we have to meet them wherever they are with a bit of the Gospel of truth in a way that’s nonthreatening. I have fun with it and the audience loves it, so I feel like all this acclaim really belongs to Christ. I’m the voice for it. That keeps you humble and in the right place in your own mind.
BH: What was it like getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
WJ: Well, I’ll tell you, it was one of the best experiences of my life. And they selected Roseanne Cash to present me, and that tickled me, too. So I was one happy camper. I found that I wasn’t so nervous. When you have to speak, that’s out of your comfort zone for most singers. However, in our ministry, I did quite a bit of speaking, so I’m not too uncomfortable. But I found myself getting very nervous as it got closer and closer. I was saying, “Let me sing first so I can settle down,” but I didn’t. So I just said a prayer to God and said, “I’m afraid that I’m going to step up there and fall flat on my face. It’s not going to happen if you don’t settle my nerves and do it through me.” And everyone has commented on how much fun it looked like I was having, and I was. I was more excited when I stepped up to the podium than I was nervous. And that’s what happens if you really let go of something and let God in. It becomes so much better.
BH: So Elvis Costello did a lot of campaigning to get you into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
WJ: Yes. He took it on himself to do that, and we’ve become close… well, I can’t say close friends, because we don’t know each other that well. But we’ve become friends. When he was inducted, he realized that I was not in the Hall of Fame, and he was floored. He said, “I can’t believe it. If the Hall of Fame is to have any credibility and not be just a boy’s club, you’ve got to have Wanda Jackson in it.” He wrote a stinging letter to the powers that be, and there was a certain guitar of his that they wanted for display, and he said, “You will not get that guitar until it can hang next to Wanda Jackson’s.” So he was taking a big step there. Since then, Bruce Springsteen and Patty, his wife, have stepped up. And those kinds of people get the attention of the people that do the voting. And I had my documentary that has been released. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
BH: I haven’t.
WJ: It’s called The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice. I had two producers, one from each coast, and they worked so wonderfully together and did it in HD, and they followed us around to festivals and club dates and even to Scandinavia with us to get a sense of my fans there. Through the whole thing, you learn a lot about me, but you also get a real good education on rock and roll at the beginning. I’m quite proud of it. And that was sent around to some key people at the Hall of Fame, and it got into the right hands. My fans stepped up to the plate, too, and wrote letters, and they said they got a flood of letters from my fans. I didn’t do it alone.
BH: So how long do you think you’ll keep making music? Will you keep going into your 90s?
WJ: Well, you know, in your mind you never get old. [Laughs.] Have you heard older people say that? You still think you’re 21, but when you go to jump, you can’t jump as high, and when you bend over, you can’t get up as easily. I don’t put any deadline on it. I’ll know when I should bow out, and I will do it gracefully and pass the mantle on to someone. But I’m sure enjoying the fact that in my 70s I’ve got this new career and all these beautiful young people loving this music that I did as a kid. I’m really grateful, and I’m having the time of my life. My husband and I both are. We love traveling and it keeps us together, and we believe God has us together for a reason. We understand that, and the more I’m with Wendell, the more I want to be. And that’s God’s way. You don’t get tired of each other, and you’re not looking around for someone else. You keep falling more and more in love with each other. It’s truly great.
BH: Could you have ever imagined this life all those years ago when you started?
WJ: No. I can’t say I could. As a kid, you don’t think that far ahead. I never even thought about getting old. It just kind of crept up on me. [Laughs.] I looked in the mirror one day and said, “Who is this? That’s my mother! It’s not me.”
BH: But it seems like your music has kept you young.
WJ: I think it has. And all the travel. We stay up to date on trends. I’m not a trendy dresser, but I’m not going to be dressing like the grandma that I am. [Laughs.]